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L.A. County supervisors challenge Sheriff Villanueva in court over deputy’s reinstatement

L.A. County supervisors challenge Sheriff Villanueva in court over deputy’s reinstatement
Deputy Caren Carl Mandoyan, left — shown with Sheriff Alex Villanueva, center, and Assistant Sheriff Tim Murakami — was reinstated after being fired in connection with allegations of domestic abuse and stalking. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County sought an injunction against Sheriff Alex Villanueva on Monday over his reinstatement of a deputy who was fired in connection with allegations of domestic abuse, setting off an extraordinary test of wills between the county’s governing body and a newly elected sheriff who has vowed to rebuild the department.

The county’s lawyers say Villanueva acted unlawfully when he rehired Deputy Caren Carl Mandoyan, who volunteered on Villanueva’s campaign after being fired by former Sheriff Jim McDonnell in 2016.

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The county’s petition, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, also suggests Mandoyan might be violating California law by acting as a law enforcement officer. The county determined that he is no longer an employee and directed him to return his badge and gun.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for Wednesday.

“This has all really stemmed from our own solid belief that the termination was final, and that the new sheriff did not have the authority simply to reinstate a person who had been terminated,” said Sheila Kuehl, a member of the Board of Supervisors who has been among the most vocal critics of the sheriff’s decision to reinstate Mandoyan.

A spokeswoman for the department said it had not received the lawsuit and would reserve comment on pending litigation.

Mandoyan’s attorney, Greg Smith, said Monday that his client plans to remain on the job, in defiance of the county’s wishes.

Villanueva, who said Sunday that the decision would be reviewed through the “legal employment process,” has shown no indication that he plans to reverse course.

His resistance comes despite the county’s written notification to Mandoyan on Thursday that he would no longer be paid. That letter, which came at the behest of the board and was signed by the county’s chief accountant, John Naimo, called the reinstatement “unlawful” and questioned why the sheriff hadn’t rescinded his decision.

It also ordered the deputy to surrender any county property, including his service weapon and law enforcement badge. Smith said his client would not surrender his law enforcement credentials.

The latest action increases the tension between the board, a five-member elected body that controls a $30-billion county budget, and the sheriff, who ousted McDonnell last year and has sought to assert his own authority over personnel decisions.

In an extraordinary public upbraiding in late January, the supervisors sharply questioned the sheriff’s goal of establishing a “truth and reconciliation” panel to review past disciplinary actions against other department employees. Villanueva has argued the process was flawed and led to unfair terminations.

That broader plan forced their determination to settle the question of Villanueva’s authority, but Kuehl said the board was also concerned about the allegations that led to Mandoyan’s dismissal.

The Times reported in January that Mandoyan had been fired in 2016 by McDonnell after a fellow deputy alleged Mandoyan grabbed her by the neck, tried to break into her home and sent her harassing text messages.

Smith said his client got into a verbal argument with the woman, with whom he had been in a relationship, and did not commit domestic abuse.

“Did he show bad judgment with that woman? Yes. But he didn’t beat her up,” Smith said.

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Prosecutors investigated the woman’s claims and looked at video evidence in the case but declined to charge Mandoyan with intimate partner violence.

The firing was upheld by a county appeals board, but Villanueva reinstated the deputy in his first weeks as sheriff.

“While the specific facts of this case are protected under the Peace Officer Bill of Rights and civil service procedures, I can assure that an objective, honest and fair assessment was conducted before reinstatement,” Villanueva said in a statement Sunday. “We will let the process continue forward as we work to determine the final outcome.”

The legal action filed by the county against Villanueva, Mandoyan and the Sheriff’s Department asks the court to settle the dispute. The heavily redacted petition argues that the reinstatement is invalid because it wasn’t approved by the county’s personnel director, who doesn’t work for Villanueva.

It also states that the sheriff overstepped his authority by agreeing to settle a legal claim Mandoyan filed in 2018 over his firing.

As part of the agreement, Villanueva authorized the Sheriff’s Department to rewrite the deputy’s disciplinary record and void the internal affairs findings against him, according to the petition. The agreement also said Mandoyan would be given back pay for the period of Sept. 26, 2016, through Dec. 27, 2018. The county claims the agreement is invalid because it was not signed by counsel.

However, Smith said an attorney with the county counsel's office was in the room when the agreement was made to reinstate Mandoyan, and that the attorney approved of the agreement. He said he could not provide the name of the attorney.

The petition notes that Mandoyan continues to possess county property and act as a deputy sheriff, in violation of the penal code.

The actions by the sheriff and the deputy are “exposing the county to significant liability, threatening public safety and undermining trust in the department,” it reads.

Jessica Levinson, who teaches governance at Loyola Law School, said Villanueva could be held personally liable by having Mandoyan work as a deputy even though the county has stated he is no longer employed.

Also, Mandoyan could face allegations of impersonating an officer if he were involved in a shooting or other incident, Levinson said. It’s unclear whether the county’s lawyers would represent Mandoyan if sued by a member of the public, she said.

“It just shows how extraordinary this battle is,” Levinson said. “By county counsel washing their hands of Villanueva in this instance, they’re very clearly saying, ‘We don’t owe you all the duties that arise when you have a client, like loyalty and attorney-client privilege.’ ”

Jorja Leap, an adjunct professor at UCLA who studies interactions between law enforcement and the community, said the split between the sheriff and the Board of Supervisors threatens what is normally a more collaborative relationship between officials.

“I think this is very sad. This is not where the energy should be expended,” Leap said, adding that she believes it’s up to Villanueva to “admit his mistake and move forward.”

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Villanueva scored a shocking upset over McDonnell in November as the first challenger to unseat an incumbent Los Angeles County sheriff in more than a century. He shook up the race by promising to kick federal immigration officials out of the jails and use his credibility as a longtime deputy to reform the department. Before becoming sheriff, he hadn’t risen past the rank of lieutenant.

But his three months in office have been defined by controversy as he has clashed with some sheriff watchdogs and upset some progressive groups that supported him.

In January, he criticized some efforts by the department to reduce force against jail inmates — a problem that led to a massive jail abuse scandal — as a “social experiment” that backfired and put lives at risk.

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